Irish artist Paul Henry (1876-1958) spent almost a decade on Achill Island between 1910 and 1919. Paul Henry and his wife Grace Henry painted Achill landscapes and portraits of Achill people, and Paul Henry's paintings came to typify an image of the west of Ireland in the early years of the Irish Free State.

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Paul Henry & Achill Island (continued)

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In 1911 the Henrys moved from Keel to Pollagh (Paul Henry was to move lodgings frequently on Achill), taking rooms with the recently widowed Bridget Fadian. Bridget, who kept a shop in the village, was to remarry to a John MacNamara. Paul Henry, who lodged with Bridget for three years, forged a deep and lasting friendship with John MacNamara and his father, Johnny Tom Owen MacNamara. Paul would often go fishing on Achill's lakes in the early morning with Johnny Tom Owen, a habit which undoubtedly inspired him to sketch the Achill landscape in the dawn light, which he often did. His friendship with Johnny Tom Owen was sufficiently familiar for the Achill man to suggest titles for Paul Henry's paintings - some of which Henry adopted, as in the landscape 'The Lake of the Tears of the Sorrowing Women' (1916-17, Niland Gallery, Sligo County Library).

Paul Henry was deeply moved by the harshness of life on Achill Island, both the living conditions and the hardness of the economic life. At that time Achill Island provided huge numbers of migratory labour to the farms of Scotland, as well as the usual supply of men for labour and women for domestic service in England, the United States and Australia. This left the island populated by young children and their mothers, and the elderly, for much of the year. Paul Henry's observations are recorded in an unpublished manuscript on life on Achill:

..."the people cling with pathetic heroism to their holdings with a dumb ferocity of affection. Existence [for many of them] would be simply impossible were it not for the money coming in from [relatives in] America".
(quoted in S.B. Kennedy, p43)
... "On a rude track converging on the road seven or eight women, each bent under a heavy creel of turf, walking barefoot in single file like a gang of slaves, passed towards the village ... A few women - not a man is to be seen - dressed in red with orange or mauve head shawls are dotted over the fields, bending over their spades, grubbing feverishly in the thorny soil'.
(S.B. Kennedy, p51)

The image of the peasant woman toiling in the field with her colourful shawl or headscarf is one that Paul Henry returned to frequently, borrowing heavily from Millet's famous paintings 'The Angelus' and 'The Gleaners'. In his later years on Achill, and certainly after he left the island in 1919, Paul Henry moved towards painting pure landscape without any figures in them. One suggestion for this is that the women of Achill did not want to be sketched by Paul Henry, at least, did not want to be portrayed in the manner that he wanted. According to Mary Cosgrove's essay, 'Paul Henry and Achill Island', Henry castigated the young girls on Achill for turning up to model wearing modern silk stockings and high heeled shoes, rather than barefoot and in the everyday clothes handed down to them by their grandmothers. Paul Henry often had to sketch surreptiously in the villages on Achill, hiding his sketchpad inside a book.

One occasion on which we can perhaps forgive Paul Henry his furtive sketching, given the human tragedy unfolding before him, comes with the sketches for the painting 'Watching for the Boats'. Paul Henry explained in his notebook:

"... One morning the long Atlantic rollers were thundering on the cliffs as I came round a corner and saw a group of men and women huddled together on a promontory - they had been there all night their eyes searching the troubled waters for a sight of the fishing boats which were never to come home'.
(quoted in S.B. Kennedy, p65)

The parallels with J.M. Synge's 'Riders to the Sea' are here overwhelming.

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The Tower by Paul Henry
The Tower
by Paul Henry

Paul Henry gallery
Click the title above for a gallery of Paul Henry paintings

Further Reading

Buy books on Achill Island from Amazon

Paul Henry
by S.B. Kennedy

Robert Henri & His Circle
by W. Homer

My People: The Portraits of Robert Henri
By Valerie Ann Leeds

Robert Henri: His Life and Art
by Bennard Perlman